Archdiocese of St. Louis Fights Judge's Order to Release Unprecedented Level of Abuse Records
By Jennifer S. Mann
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
December 31, 2013
|Joseph Ross, former pastor at St. Cronan Church in St. Louis, in August 2002 became the first priest from the St. Louis archdiocese laicized, or defrocked, for abusing minors. — Handout Photo|
The first priest defrocked here as the child abuse scandal erupted in the Roman Catholic Church is now at the center of a lawsuit burrowing more deeply into the issue than ever before.
A civil suit against Joseph Ross has the potential to reveal two decades of internal records on sexual abuse allegations made against St. Louis priests, if a judge’s order holds.
The suit, which also names Archbishop Robert Carlson and the Archdiocese of St. Louis, was filed in 2011 by a 19-year-old woman who says Ross began abusing her 16 years ago at St. Cronan’s Church.
Ross had been convicted of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy at a University City parish a decade earlier, and was sent away for treatment, then reassigned to the new parish. Years later, additional abuse allegations surfaced.
Attorneys for the woman, identified in documents only as Jane Doe, seek to show that the archdiocese had a pattern of covering up abuse claims and knew that failing to disclose past problems could cause new ones.
St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker’s ruling Nov. 15, which also calls for the release of five years of records for non-clergy employees, has provoked an escalating legal battle.
The archdiocese is fighting to narrow the scope of the decision and to keep accused priests’ names secret. It has enlisted a team of out-of-state lawyers with deep experience in such matters.
Included is L. Martin Nussbaum, who represented Boston and other dioceses in sex abuse-related cases, and Scott Browning, who has served as lead counsel to the Archdiocese of Denver.
Dierker’s order says the disclosure must include:
• The date of the complaint or allegation.
• The identity of the accuser (to be sealed from the public).
• To whom the complaint was made.
• The outcome.
Records pertaining to Ross’ defrocking and other personnel matters already have been turned over and are under court seal. No such limits have been placed on the other records, although Dierker’s order does give the archdiocese room to argue for further protections.
The clergy records cover 1983-2003 for about 200 parishes. The archdiocese convinced Dierker to restrict the non-clergy records to 1996-2000, given difficulties in compiling them.
In a recent hearing, Browning said Dierker’s order, as it stands, would be “novel” among thousands of cases filed nationwide. In particular, he expressed concern about the release of victims’ names to the plaintiff’s attorneys, who might be the first to contact them after years of silence or repressed memories.
“We’re going to create a huge problem here that hasn’t been done anywhere else in the country,” he said.
But Ken Chackes, one of the attorneys for Doe, said the names were essential to building their claim. He noted that the same had been done in a case of his in St. Louis County, involving abuse allegations against the U.S. Marianists at the Chaminade College Preparatory School in Creve Coeur. In that case, he said, the school agreed to make the initial outreach to alleged victims.
He added that “when priests’ names are made public, it provides a great deal of healing to the other victims out there.”
In a Nov. 19 statement, Angie Shelton, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, wrote: “The breadth of this order appears to include allegations against lay employees and clergy that were not found to be credible. Last week in court, lawyers for the Archdiocese of St. Louis sought clarification of the court’s order and will continue to request that privacy rights of all, including victims, are protected by limiting the scope to a timeframe relevant to the allegations in the lawsuit.”
One priest has separately filed a motion to intervene anonymously.
The first public claims to be raised against Ross involved his time as a pastor at Christ the King Church in University City. In 1988, he pleaded guilty of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old two years earlier. He was accused of grabbing and kissing the youngster during Confession.
Doe’s lawsuit claims that after the conviction, the Archdiocese sent Ross to St. Luke Institute, in Maryland, known for treating priests for mental health issues including sexual disorders.
In 1991, Ross was assigned to St. Cronan’s.
Doe alleges that Ross sexually assaulted her on a weekly basis from 1997 to 2001, starting when she was about 5 or 6 years old. Most of the alleged encounters were at the church: in the parish center meeting room and restroom, the bell tower and children’s liturgy room; but also once at her parents’ home while a family member was being baptized.
Some of the encounters were so violent that she vomited and bled, the suit alleges. She claims that when she was “bad,” by “not making him happy,” Ross forced her to put her hand in boiling liquids as punishment.
He told her she was doing God’s bidding and helping him overcome his attraction to boys, she alleges. At the time, she didn’t tell anyone.
In 2002, Ross was removed from his church duties because of a review of the 1988 conviction and other allegations stemming from his time at the University City church.
Police reports surfaced showing Ross had had at least two other arrests, for allegedly propositioning an undercover officer and allegedly engaging in sexual conduct in a public restroom. There also was an accusation of sexual misconduct involving a youngster from his days as an associate pastor at the former St. William Church, in the 1970s.
After his removal, a spokesman for the archdiocese apologized to the victims and their families for Ross’ previous reassignments, saying it would not have taken place under archdiocesan policies that had since been developed.
Chackes, who specializes in abuse cases, said Ross was “one of the most egregious cases that we’ve seen.”
EARLY HURDLES PASSED
Doe was 13 when she told her mother that Ross had hurt her.
Ross was arrested in Arkansas in 2008 as a result of the claims, and brought to St. Louis to face 11 counts of statutory rape, statutory sodomy and child molestation.
In 2010, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce’s office dismissed the charges, saying that despite “full confidence in the victim’s allegations” there was not enough evidence to proceed to trial.
There were suggestions at the time that the girl’s story had unraveled during depositions. Chackes, more recently, said that prosecutors had to meet different standards for criminal charges and that the dismissal did not reflect on Doe’s credibility or the viability of her civil claims.
In fact, for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests — a victims’ advocacy group — Doe’s case holds more promise than most in its potential to expose wrongdoing within the Catholic Church.
For one, she reported her allegations early. Many claims do not hold up in court because the statute of limitations has expired. David Clohessy, of SNAP, said Doe’s case was one of three pending in the St. Louis area that had crossed that legal hurdle.
Also, many cases are settled before they reach the stage of discovery, the legal point where the defense must provide information sought by the plaintiff. Chackes said this was his first case against the archdiocese to get far enough for a judge to order it.
Clohessy said there had been 52 publicly accused priests and nuns in the St. Louis area, and “I think, frankly, there will be three times that number if these files ever see the light of day.”
If recent history is any indication, the archdiocese will continue to fight to prevent that possibility. Its attorneys have already passed two deadlines set by Dierker, prompting the judge to chide them recently for not making more of an effort and Doe’s attorneys to call for sanctions. Though some material has been turned over, it is not close to what Dierker ordered.
Still, in agreeing to entertain another motion to narrow his ruling, Dierker acknowledged “a risk of harm to both the alleged victims and the alleged perpetrators.”
Shelton, in her statement, noted, “All of the information sought is from a timeframe years before Archbishop Robert J. Carlson was installed as archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The Archdiocese, under Archbishop Carlson, takes allegations of abuse extremely seriously.”
She encouraged any victims to come forward.